It was a quiet morning that next day. The sun would rise, the commuters would do their mindless, daily routines and life as normal would go on. The children would wake up reluctantly to go to school, the businessmen and women would stagger into their offices in a half daze. Andrew Portnoy sat there, quietly, in his usual booth at Denny’s. The waitress never came by and asked if he needed anything. He’d forgive her; today, he felt different. He felt cold. It was the first day in many, many years he didn’t have anything to work towards. It wasn’t necessary, anymore.
Cynthia Abel strolled into the diner as she did every morning. For the past few weeks, it’s been a solemn gathering at the usual booth. It’s been empty, her friends and colleagues absent and the cold loneliness would chill her. So much work to be done, yet it was all out of her hands now. She had served her purpose in the scheme of things, she’d tell herself. Yet there was a feeling of ill-accomplishment; her heart longed to keep up the Vigil and there was so many more unspeakable things out there. But this morning, her mind was distracted as, for the first time in weeks, she saw a familiar face sitting in the booth. Even if it was Portnoy, she was happy to see somebody.
“It’s been a while, stranger” she uneasily spoke to Andrew. She slipped into the booth, and nervously grinned. Her and Portnoy always had an uneasy partnership; being a doctor, she always held every human life in higher regard. Portnoy, however, was a more careless hunter. He was rough; it was obvious he’s seen a few things in his time. But it never phased him to strike a person – monster or not – and sometimes Cynthia and him clashed over his “methods.”
“You can rest easy now, Doc. It’s over.” Portnoy’s eyes glazed over as he looked out the window, admiring the sunrise on this morning.
“It’s over? What happened? Where are the others?” the news sank into the Doctor, but still, that feeling of burden. So much left to do…it’s never over.
“They’re fine, Doc. Cecily is a bit shot up, and Rick’s nephew is going to need some therapy for sure. But still, they made it. It’s over. Damian has been killed. The ritual was interrupted; and Shub- Niggurath gets to sleep for another few millennium. The cult, the Tainted, is shattered and running. The world gets to keep spinning, and we all get to retire.”
Retirement. Does a Hunter even get to dream of such a thing? Cynthia stared blankly for a moment wondering such a thing. She thought about their uneasy ally, Duffy. Duffy was burning fast; he lived for the thrill of the hunt, but in order to keep going he lived off a diet of drugs and alcohol. Retirement was never an option for him; and he would run himself ragged to ensure he’d never see such a day.
“I never approved of your methods, Portnoy” she’d calmly strike at him. “What happened back at the Warehouse that night, that should’ve been handled differently.”
“For God’s sakes, Doc! We just stopped a blood goddess from rising and devouring the world, a half-demon from ascending into Avatarhood, fought off droves of Vampires and Zombies, and you’re still pissed at me for hitting that woman?”
“It was unnecessary! We could’ve approached her, and possibly Damian, with a lot more caution. Instead of your forceful bullying! Your damn loud mouth got us into trouble every step of the way! And you would never tell us why we were even following her and that other guy to begin with!”
“I knew him.” Portnoy sat back into the booth, sighing.
“He was a fucking puppet. A Ghoul. I’ve seen him around before. From back when I was a puppet, an addict, a slave. I knew if he was here, then his sire was here. I went in doing what I did thinking we were going to take out his Mistress and slay a few vamps; how the fuck was I supposed to assume all of this bullshit with the Tainted was going to go down?”
“Just…the way you hit her. The look in your eyes…”
“She was lying to us, Doc!”
“You weren’t human! You were…”
Cynthia went silent, looking away and closing her eyes trying to hold back tears. She knew Portnoy was trying hard; trying to fight back his old addictions. Still, he was such a loose canon, and his fuse was short. And still, she felt if it wasn’t for his actions, she would still be where she was needed. Her patients, her ex-husband, she needed to be more of a hero to more people than this guy. This monster.
Portnoy slammed his fist on the table; looking around to make sure he didn’t startle the other customers and their breakfast. Of course, nobody noticed. “It’s like what the old guy was telling me back at the soup kitchen; once a monster, always a monster.”
“I didn’t mean…..”
“No…” Portnoy interrupted, “…you did. It’s okay. I’ve kind of accepted my lot in life.”
“It’s just, you had no regard for the rest of us! You were always sticking your head into the viper’s nest, and you were dragging us with you! I mean, look where you got me in all this!”
“Look where I got you? Look where it got me! Fuck that, look around! We’re still here! The world is still spinning, the sun came up this morning. Damn it, did everything we give be in vein for you? We won, Cynthia. Our losses gave to the Vigil. Our sacrifices triumphed.”
She watched the traffic move through the morning commutes. The waitress walked by again, ignoring the table and not even noticing the two sitting there arguing. Another uneasy silence.
“How did you go, Andrew?” she asked reluctantly.
“Zombies. Tackled Damian to the ground, and the zombies bull rushed me. Torn to shreds.”
“What a terrifying way to go….”
“To be honest, I hardly noticed. The adrenaline was already going; I plowed through most of them to get to the altar before the ritual was complete. Slapped that damn thing down to seal the ward against Shub-Niggurath, and I believe my parting words were just `Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.’ I wish I chose something a bit…classier? More epic? I dunno. I suppose it’s useless now.”
“Useless? Look at us. We’re useless now. The Blood Goddess sleeps for now, but what about everything else out in the world? The war is far from over, Andrew. I’ve left my patients behind, my husband….”
“Your husband knows, Cynthia. I told him everything. He wouldn’t rest not knowing.”
Tears filled her eyes, and she broke down crying. Portnoy looked down at the table, grinning at some of the scuff marks in his place. Not that long ago, her husband and his partner were trying to arrest him for the murder of Cynthia. He couldn’t be caught, he wouldn’t be caught. Not this close to the last day, he thought. And he could tell by the look in his partner’s eyes, the cop was a puppet. It was painfully obvious why Portnoy was a suspect….Damian wanted the loose cannon taken out. So they played on the widowed cop’s emotions, and went after him. It was a hard fight; not easy slamming a plate into a cop’s face and out-running them. It lasted an eternity; every minute spent running in an adrenaline rush is like a year, and he was running for a good half hour. He should’ve been caught that night, no fool is lucky enough to slip away from an arrest like that.
“I didn’t attend your funeral, Cynthia, because I couldn’t dare look your husband in the face.”
“But why? Why did you have to bring him into this? You know as well as I do that there are things you can’t forget, you can’t unlearn!”
“I also knew that I was going to die last night, Doc. And I know how much closure means to a man, especially a cop. It was already unfair. It was unfair the moment you let him into your life, and the moment you took up the Vigil.”
She shook her head. “But I didn’t want this anymore! I dove too deep, I wasn’t ready. I wanted my life back; I’m not a Hunter I’m a doctor! I…I”
Portnoy reached out and touched Doc’s hands. She was starting to get overworked; after his gesture, she just forced herself to bite back the tears and tried to breath. Portnoy looked at her, calmly, and whispered across the table “Doc…stop it for a second. You’re not breathing. We’re not alive.” And in that moment, a dread feeling in her chest consumed her, but he was right. She snapped into awareness. She was so used to how things felt when she was alive; but even now, his hands didn’t feel the same way. The pain in her chest, it wasn’t the same. She began to drift; she felt herself lighter now snapping into the truth of the situation. Everything around them: the chairs, the table, the people…it was all disconnected. The only things not disconnected, was them.
“Why are we still here? Is this it?” she asked in horror.
“I don’t know…” Portnoy replied calmly. “I haven’t figured that part out yet.”
She stood up, waving her hands through the shroud of shadow and the real, drifting amongst the patrons of the diner. She knew she was dead, she knew she was in a different state. But this was the first time in weeks that the reality of the situation really presented itself. She looked back at Portnoy.
“We’re still here….”
“Yeah, afraid so. I think we’re not finished; I think we both feel like our jobs aren’t done.”
“But the job is never done, Andrew…”
“I know, Cynthia, I know.” A smile slow creaked across her face. The look of children in a nearby booth, eating pancakes and coloring on their placemats.
“But we’re still here….” she whispered.
“They’re still here” he replied. She looked at him, as the light of the sun continued to bloom into the place.
She replied: “We won then.”